Kotter's 8-Step Change Model as a tool in Program Management

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Developed by Emma Balstrup Klinke Hansen



A program exists in a dynamic environment and is affected by external as well as internal factors this makes it necessary for a program manager to make changes to the program to adapt to changes from the environment.[1] In the program management literature like The Standard for Program Management,[1] one find tools to make the decision of change but not how the change has to be implemented in a program successfully without affecting the people in the program in a negative way. When first the decision about making a change is taken the next step is to implement the changes. John P. Kotter has developed a method to implement changes which consist of eight steps. These steps are described in Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model to guide organizations through change.[2] As programs can be seen as temporary organizations, [3] Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model can be used to implement changes in a program. This article will present The 8-Step Change Model as well as how to implement the model in a program. Since the model was developed it has been criticized for being inflexible because of its linear nature and Kotter has done further research in the area, therefore, Kotter has made an update to the model called; The Eight Accelerators. The updated version has other values than the first which makes the models suitable for different programs and situations.

Managing programs

A program can be defined as: “ a temporary, flexible organization created to coordinate, direct and oversee the implementation of a set of related projects and activities in order to deliver outcomes and benefits related to the organization’s strategic objectives. A program is likely to have a life that spans several years.” [3] The roles and responsibilities of a program manager are to lead the temporary organization through the time it exists till it has reached the program’s strategic objectives and benefits. [1] Leading a program involves being in contact with different stakeholders as each project manager, the project teams, the Program Management Office and the higher management levels and others but a program manager should also have knowledge within program objectives and organizational culture and processes. [1] A program is affected by internal and external factors; an example could be a change of strategy from the top management which can mean big changes for a program.[1]

Change is in the MSP framework mentioned as one of the success factors for a program.[3] As a program manager one has to be able to handle changes, which can be both minor changes and bigger changes since the many stakeholders, the fast-moving market and the duration of a program make changes inevitable and a program being dynamic. [3] A program manager has to lead many people and therefore the program manager has to be able to handle how change affects procedures, costs and other objectives of a program and at the same time how change affects people who are part of a program either as internal or external stakeholders.[3]

People are an important driver of a program and will, therefore, be affected if changes are made in a program.[3] This can affect their work procedures, the meaning of their work and will react if they do not like the changes that have to be made.[4] For this reason, the program manager has to know how to lead people when there are changes to the program. [3]

Often the people factor is not in focus when a change process is happening, the focus is more on the technical perspective.[4] When looking at literature like The Standard of Program Management[1] and how to handle change in a program, it describes tools that explain how a program manager makes the decision of change, however not how the program manager implements changes in the temporary organization. Therefore the following part will describe how the program manager implements major change after the decision of making the change has been taken.

Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model as a tool for managing change in a program

Figure 1: The Eight Accelerators. Inspired by "Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail "[2]

John P. Kotter’s work is seen as some of the most important work within change management building on Kurt Lewin’s three-stage change model from 1947.[5] Kotter bases his research on studies of around 100 companies.[6] Based on his research he developed The 8-Step Change Model which was published in 1995. It is a model to guide organizations through major change. Since change is an important part of program management.[2] The 8-Step Change Model can be useful for program managers to know how to lead people through change. To use Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model in program management one has to look at a program as defined earlier in this article “A programme is defined as a temporary, flexible organization created to coordinate, direct and oversee the implementation of a set of related projects and activities in order to deliver outcomes and benefits related to the organization’s strategic objectives. A programme is likely to have a life that spans several years.” [3] For this reason, in this article, the term program will be used but it is seen as a temporary organization.

The 8-Step Change Model is divided into steps where the program manager starts with the first step and then follows the steps in the model continuous till all steps are developed and ends with the eights step. The steps a program manager has to follow are Establishing a Sense of Urgency, Forming a Powerful Guiding Coalition, Create a Vision, Communicating the Vision, Empowering Others to Act on the Vision, Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins, Consolidating Improvements and Producing Still More Change, Institutionalizing New Approaches, which is also shown in figure 1.[2]


The steps are meant to be initiated top-down in the program and afterwards to be followed in a linear process starting at the first step “Establishing a Sense of Urgency”.[2] Because it is a tool used top-down it is suited for programs having a hierarchical structure and when big changes have to be implemented in the program and not just minor changes since it takes a lot of resources to follow all the steps. [2] The model is meant for organisational changes, therefore, the model should be used when it is the whole program that has to go through a change and not on project level. [7]

  • 1. Establishing a Sense of Urgency

The first step to take in the 8-Step Change Model is to establish a sense of urgency in the program. This means that it should be clear why changes have to be applied now and i.e. not in six months. The change has to start from the top and the program manager needs to create urgency for the relevant stakeholders in the program to convince the stakeholders that action has to be taken now since they will be part of the change.[2] Challenges occur in this step if the program manager is not a great leader. Being good at leading people is necessary because it takes a lot of effort to convince people to change. If the Program Manager does not succeed people can be barriers that make the change difficult to make or even impossible.[2]

  • 2. Forming a Powerful Guiding Coalition

When the sense of urgency is created a powerful guiding coalition has to be made. This is a group of people who will be the front-runners in the change of the program. This group should not only be the top of the hierarchy but the people should have some part of power in the form of titles, information, expertise, reputations and relationship.[2] The group also have to reach broad in the program so each project has a front-runner so the whole program will change and not only parts of it.

  • 3. Create a Vision

The guiding coalition develops a vision for the change together. It is important that this step is done in collaboration to make every person in the group feel ownership of the vision to better promote it and not being a barrier.[4] The vision should be clear and possible to explain so the listener understands it and believe in it in five minutes.[2]

  • 4. Communicating the Vision

When the vision for the change is made it has to be communicated to the stakeholders. If every person affected by the change is not aware of the vision, the change can move in different directions and the chance of success decrease. Change is not easy especially not if sacrifices have to be made. Therefore the vision has to be communicated in a way so the stakeholders believe in it.[2] For further reading on how to communicate as a program manager The Standard of Program Management is suggested. [1]

  • 5. Empowering Others to Act on the Vision

If stakeholders still do not believe in the vision for the change they can become obstacles which will prevent the change to be a success. In this step of the model, the obstacles have to be handled. This could be making an extra effort to convince a person, relocate the person or fire the person. The obstacles do not have to be people but could also be organizational structures or processes on the operational level in the program.[2] In this step, it is important the program manager is not only good at the technical perspectives of the program but also a good leader [1]

  • 6. Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins

The saying an elephant should be eaten one bite at a time also comply with this situation. The sixth step in the model tells the practitioners to make short-term wins. This means that the final goal could be far in the future so sub-goals should be made. This should be so managers have clear performance goals. [2] To do so the sub-goals have to be different for every project, or even on lower levels depending on how performance goals are made normally.

  • 7. Consolidating Improvements and Producing Still More Change

Step seven guides the practitioner not to celebrate too soon but keep being aware of the changes that have to be made. If the front runners celebrate the change too soon the people who have a negative view of the change will be fast to try to stop the change. When victory is declared too soon the reason is often that the first three steps Establishing a Sense of Urgency, Forming a Powerful Guiding Coalition and Create a Vision have not been done in a powerful way and with a clear vision, therefore first steps are important also to succeed in this step. [2]

  • 8. Institutionalizing New Approaches

When a change becomes a part of the culture's mindset the changes are successful and at this point, it is important to make sure if new employees come to the program that they learn the new mindset and not the old one.[2]


The process of the 8-Step Change Model is meant to be followed step by step from first to last, however, the model has been criticized for its linearity.[8] Each step might not fit in every change process but if not all steps are followed it will not work accordingly.[2] Situations, where steps might not be possible to go through, is if the change is affected by a time limit and therefore the last steps cannot be evaluated. [8] A program as a temporary organization can last many years and still it might not be long enough to fully implement changes and evaluate it compared to a traditional organization. Especially the first phases of the program tend to be iterative and cyclical,[1] so implementing a linear process could cause problems. This is especially because changes, happen more in the beginning of a program where it is more iterative and cyclical.[3]

Following all the steps of the change model is time-consuming for both the program manager and also for people involved in the process. This could mean that the program manager chooses another option than the model. The time needed to succeed in the process makes it impossible to use it for small changes and also when changes occur often it is too time-consuming and confusing if stakeholders often have to follow a new vision or several visions at the same time for different change processes. Looking at how fast markets change this model might not be fast enough to follow. [3] If a program manager tries to follow the model it can be difficult to know exactly what to do since the model is not very detailed and each step could have many subprocesses. [8] This means that further knowledge could be needed either from Kotter’s book Leading Change from 1996 that describes the 8-Step Change Model further or elsewhere.

The model has been criticized for not being academic since it is based on Kotter's personal research in different companies and does not refer to any other sources than his own. Although it has been criticized for lacking an empirical fundament it became a success when it was published and has been cited more than 4000 in Google Scholar. [8] What it is criticized for could also be the reason why it is and was so popular. The model is made more for practitioners than for academics, which makes sense in the way the research is made from real life cases. This might also be the reason why it got so popular because it was a model designed to be used in real life based on real-life cases instead of basing it on different theories. Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model has many limitations and one would be tempted to use the model just as inspiration and then pick the steps a program manager finds relevant to the program but according to Kotter: “Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result” [2], therefore, the model is made to be used continuously and are not a guarantee for a successful change process if it is not used in the way Kotter describes.

The Eight Accelerators

Figure 2: The Eight Accelerators. Inspired by "Accelerate" [7]

Since the development of the 8-Step Change Model Kotter have done more research within the field and developed the model further. The newest version is called The Eight Accelerators and was published in 2012 in his book Accelerate. The further research within change management has shown a different reality and Kotter has developed a variation of the way an organization can handle change. A lot of companies are becoming less hierarchical and the world is moving even faster.[7]Instead of having a traditional structure of an organization and then using the 8-Step Change Model when big changes have to occur, Kotter suggests an organization to have a dual operating system. This means that besides the formal system that makes an organization work, the organisation should have a second operating system meant for design and implementation of a strategy. [7]This second operating system is flexible and able to faster adapt to change so the changes can be implemented. Within the second operating system, eight accelerators exist instead of eight steps. The eight accelerators are:

  1. Create a sense of urgency around a single big opportunity
  2. Build and maintain a guiding coalition
  3. Formulate a strategic vision and develop change initiatives designed to capitalize on the big opportunity
  4. Communicate the vision and the strategy to create buy-in and attract a growing “volunteer army”
  5. Accelerate movement toward the vision and the opportunity by ensuring that the network removes barriers
  6. Celebrate visible significant short-term wins
  7. Never let up. Keep learning from experience. Don’t declare victory too soon
  8. Institutionalize strategic changes in the culture

Since this method is built on Kotter’s first research it still has eight different points and formulated almost in the same way, however, the points should be handled differently. The accelerators are working in the second system continuously and not only supposed to happen one time during one big change. Besides not being a linear process this method varies from the 8-Step Change Model by having more people involved in the change. According to Kotter as many people should be involved as possible and do it voluntarily in the new model. [7] It also differentiates because it is meant to work within a network more than a hierarchy which is better suited to the constant changes in the environment around a program.


A program is affected by the constant change and when looking at literature as The Standard for Program Management[1] it suggests tools to get changes approved by stakeholders but not how to implement big changes in a program when focusing on the people perspective. For a program manager, Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model could be useful to integrate changes. Since the characteristics of the steps of the 8-Step Change Model are that it is a linear process and meant to go from step one to step eight, it is best suited for hierarchal companies. This method could be used in program management when a big change has to occur and the program manager knows where to move from and to. This tool is best suited for programs that have a hierarchical structure. Considering the critique the model might be too linear and time-consuming to apply in a program. Thus a program manager could use the model as a guideline although it is against Kotter’s belief. [8] The updated version of the change model; The Eight Accelerators differ by handling ongoing changes and is better suited for a company that is built on networks and do not have a strongly hierarchical structure. This might make The Eight Accelerators more suited for the way a program work in a fast-changing environment. Therefore the first model might be better to use in a certain situation where the second is better to use when the program is not strictly hierarchical but affected by ongoing changes.

Annotated bibliography

  • Kotter, John P.| 1995 |"Leading change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail" Harvard Business Review pp. 59-67

To learn more about the method and the background of The 8-Step Change Model the article is relevant. Each step is also described further in the book Leading Change from 1996 by the same author.

  • Kotter, John P.| 2012 | "Accelerate." Harvard Business Review pp. 44-58

The article describes The Eight Accelerators and is useful to get a deeper understanding of the model. The article describes the reason for the updated version of The 8-Step Change Model to The Eight Accelerators and the differences between them. The article is also relevant to better understand the method since it is only described briefly in this article.

  • AXELOS, and Cabinet Office | 2011 | Managing Successful Programmes 4th ed.

One thing is to manage programs, another is to manage them successfully. For further information about how to manage programs, this book is useful. Change is a big part of the book. The book describes why change happens and how a program should be ready to handle it.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 "Project Management Institute | 2008 | The Standard for Program Management 2nd ed."
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 " Kotter, John P.| 1995 |Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review pp. 59-67 "
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 " AXELOS, and Cabinet Office | 2011 | Managing Successful Programmes 4th ed."
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "John Hayes | 2014 | The Theory and Practice of Change Management 4th ed."
  5. " Armenakis, Achilles A, and Bedeian, Arthur G.| 1999 | Organizational Change: A Review of Theory and Research in the 1990s. Journal of Management Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 293-315- "
  6. " Buchanan et al.| 2005 | No going back: A review of the literature on sustaining organizational change. International Journal of Management Reviews Vol. 7 I No.3 pp. 189–205"
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 " Kotter, John P.| 2012 | Accelerate. Harvard Business Review pp. 44-58 "
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 " Appelbaum, Steven H and Habashy, Sally and Malo, Jean-Luc and Shafiq, Hisham.| 2005 | Back to the future: revisiting Kotter's 1996 change model", Journal of Management Development, Vol. 31 Issue: 8, pp.764-782,"
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